Fresh Herbs – A Cook’s Best Friend

It’s that time of the year when many of us cooks get excited because we can have all sorts of fresh herbs growing in our garden that we can snip and use in so many ways. Nowadays, you can buy fresh herbs of many varieties year round but it is so nice to have a personal garden with beautiful and flavorful herbs growing. Right now, our herb garden is growing tarragon, chives, sage, rosemary, basil, thyme, oregano, chamomile, mint, borage & parsley. In this Cooking Tip, I would like to talk about how to get the best out of these fresh herbs. I did write a prior Cooking Tip on storing fresh herbs. If you would like to receive that Tip, just let me know. I will also be teaching a Cooking with Herbs class for Hudson Gardens on Saturday, June 13. My class will be preceded by a Growing Herbs session taught by a member of the Hudson Gardens staff. Join us there as we will be making and tasting many different dishes where herbs are the main star.

Why use fresh herbs? They can take a plain dish to an extraordinary dish. They can add flavor, color & even just a tiny bit of texture. There are no absolute rules for using fresh herbs but there are some recommendations that will help you use them to their best potential.

If you do grow your own, cut them in the morning after the dew has dried. It is at that time that they are the most aromatic and flavorful. Prepare them as your recipe indicates. It is good to use either a sharp knife or kitchen scissors to cut the herbs to prevent excessive cell wall breakage.

For more robust herbs such as rosemary, oregano & thyme, you can add them at any point in the cooking. They do well in longer cooking dishes such as stews. For the more delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives, add them at the very end of the cooking process to preserve their color, flavor & aroma.

For most herbs, you are just going to use the leaves. However, for some herbs such as cilantro and parsley, the stems contain quite a bit of flavor and are tender enough that they can be chopped up with the leaves.

Here are some recommendations for using specific herbs. For a fairly complete chart of when/how to use various herbs, see this link.

Basil

  • Varieties – the most common in our herb gardens is Italian basil, which is used in making Genovese Pesto. Other varieties are Thai basil, cinnamon basil, lemon basil and purple basil.
  • Flavor – sweet, floral & slightly peppery.
  • Typical uses — Tomato dishes/sauces, light pasta dishes, summer veggies.

Chives

  • This herb is in the onion family.
  • Flavor – an herbal, green taste with onion overtones.
  • Typical uses – egg dishes, potato dishes or as a pretty garnish on many savory plates.

Cilantro

  • This herb is also known as coriander leaf. There are some people who claim it tastes “soapy”, something that is related to that person’s genetic makeup.
  • Flavor – it adds a bright and citrusy zing to dishes.
  • Typical uses – Latin American and Asian cooking.

Dill

  • Flavor – this is a tangy & grassy herb.
  • Typical uses – it is ideal for poultry or seafood & pairs great with lemon & yogurt.

Marjoram

  • Flavor – has a grassy but slightly sweet flavor.
  • Typical uses – it works well in soups, risottos and dressings & pairs well with chicken, fish and tofu.

Mint

  • Varieties – most common are spearmint and peppermint but you might also want to check out chocolate, pineapple, apple and mojito mint. One of my favorites sold by my local nursery is Candy Peppermint. It tastes just like its name.
  • Flavor – adds a refreshing & cooling flavor.
  • Typical uses – most commonly used in sweet dishes but, can also be used in savory dishes. It is wonderful with fresh fruit or in summer beverages.

Oregano

  • Varieties – there is a Greek and Mexican oregano.
  • Flavor – the Greek variety is pungent and peppery. The Mexican variety has a stronger, more earthy flavor with a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – the Green variety is classically used in Italian sauces and dressings. The Mexican oregano pairs well with southwestern dishes.

Parsley

  • Varieties – along with basil, this is one of the most used and enjoyed herb. In stores, you often find only curly parsley but you should try to find (or grow) Italian flat-leaf parsley as it is more flavorful.
  • Flavor – is mild and subtle while adding freshness.
  • Typical uses – often used as a garnish on many dishes, especially poultry and seafood but is also used in making stock. Try it with pasta, eggs, potatoes or lemony dishes. It is also a very prominent ingredient in tabbouleh.

Rosemary

  • Flavor – this is a robust and sturdy herb that has an almost pungent flavor.
  • Typical uses – great with heartier dishes such as lamb, pork or roasted vegetables.

Sage

  • Flavor – this is a woodsy –flavored herb that is fairly distinctive.
  • Typical uses – does great in stuffings, soups, risottos and really shines in a brown butter sauce. It also pairs well with game meats, poultry & root vegetables.

Tarragon

  • Flavor – this is a very aromatic herb with a peppery and licorice-like flavor.
  • Typical uses – often used in egg dishes, salad dressings and as a garnish.

Thyme

  • Varieties – this is a classic herb in French cooking with leaves that are very aromatic. There is both a common thyme as well as lemon thyme.
  • Flavor – spicy with notes of cloves & mint. The lemon variety adds a citrus note.
  • Typical uses – it can be used in so many ways including meat dishes, soups, stews & sauces. It can also be added to breads and desserts.

Although I am mostly talking about fresh herbs in this Tip, I have just a bit to say about dried herbs. Fresh herbs give just that – freshness – to a dish. When an herb is dried, it loses that freshness and has a more concentrated flavor that can be very different than its fresh counterpart. When substituting one for the other, use only ⅓ to ½ as much of the dried form as the fresh herb.

Those delicate herbs such as basil, parsley and chives tend to taste better fresh Tougher herbs such as rosemary, oregano and thyme can do very well in either fresh or dried forms.

Fresh herbs are a cook’s best friend and can add so much to a dish. Whether you grow your own or not, they should be a part of your culinary arsenal!